28 July 2020

Same as It Ever Was

In heaven with St. Augustine and the Talking Heads

Becca Rothfeld

According to medieval Jewish commentaries on the Torah, heaven will be dazzling and dramatic. It will contain chambers “built of silver and gold, ornamented with pearls.” New arrivals will pass through gates guarded by 600,000 angels and bathed in “248 rivulets of balsam and attar.” The righteous will attend elaborate feasts and lounge in lavish gardens. As a rule, paintings of heaven are more vague and more amorphous than paintings of hell, but avuncular artists still stuff them with cherry-cheeked cherubs. In the New Testament, John promises his followers that God’s “house has many rooms.”

I don’t know for sure whether any of this is literal—whether the saved will have real bodies to bathe or eat with, whether the cherubs will dirty any actual diapers. What I do know is that if these are metaphors for anything, they are metaphors for novelty. Whatever life in heaven is really like, even if it does not involve winged babies and banquets, it will never be boring. The many rooms there, be they physical or figurative, will each loom larger than the last.

• • •

The Talking Heads seem to reject this common wisdom. They are not interested in attar and armies of angels. Instead, they insist that “heaven is a place where nothing ever happens,” and as if to attest to the violent eventlessness of paradise, they croon this line over and over. It is echoed six times in “Heaven,” an eighteen-line track from the 1979 album Fear of Music—and the second song immortalized in Jonathan Demme’s euphoric concert documentary Stop Making Sense (1984).

The traditional imagery of heaven is ribbon-wreathed and rococo, but “Heaven” is almost severe in its simplicity. In Stop Making Sense, it is performed by only two of the Talking Heads, David Byrne and Tina Weymouth. They stand on a dark and largely empty stage, dressed in earth tones and strumming their guitars. Byrne is a famously twitchy dancer, but in “Heaven” he remains mostly stationary. Every so often, he stomps his foot like a leggy colt impatient to bolt away. Weymouth, an understated dancer in even the jazziest of circumstances, just bobs her head and smiles. Meanwhile, the remaining seven musicians wait off in the wings. Among them are Steve Scales and Chris Frantz, the drummers, and Bernie Worrell, who plays the synth. In “Heaven,” then, there is no percussive backdrop. The knotty electronic texturing so characteristic of the Talking Heads has all been sheared away. What’s left are warm chords and the thin warble of voices.

The lyrics, too, are simple: “There is a party. Everyone is there. Everyone will leave at exactly the same time.” What about the revels and the audiences with God? What about the pearls and the fanfare and the trumpets? David Byrne’s heaven lacks all the usual amenities. It is, he sings, “a bar”—surely a dive bar, surely grimy—where the band plays just one song. They “play it once again”; they “play it all night long.” Or it is “a kiss” that “will start again”—and when it does, it “will not be any different / it will be exactly the same.” On and on it goes—the kiss, the song. Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens. The kiss starts again. The song plays again. They are not any different. They are exactly the same. Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens. Did I already say that? There is nothing else to say. What is the point of ascending to a heaven like this?

• • •

David Byrne writes in his memoir-cum-manifesto, How Music Works, “The chapters are not chronological or sequential. You can read them in any order.” It may not be possible, but it is at least permissible, to read every part of How Music Works simultaneously.

• • •

Maybe the best we can manage is to read the ending first. How Music Works is a sort of memoir, and a memoir is a sort of confession—and Augustine, who is surely in heaven if anyone is, knew that a confession always begins with the end. First, because we know that the repentant will ultimately be forgiven; second, because God already knows whatever we are about to divulge to Him. “A person who confesses to you is not informing you about what goes on within him,” Augustine explains in one of his direct addresses to God, who does not need explanations. He continues, “A closed heart does not shut you out.”

Anthony van Dyck, Saint Augustine in Ecstasy, 1628.

Augustine’s magnificent Confessions are without suspense not only for God but for us. However feckless his youth, however carnal his sometime worldly attachments, we know that he reforms and converts in the end. That is the premise of his book’s very existence. What is the point of reading a story like this?

• • •

One of the last movies I saw in person before the plague ended the quaint practice of theater going was Stop Making Sense. I saw it in Brookline at the Coolidge Corner, which was built in 1933 and which is as unapologetically flamboyant as only art deco confections can be. I miss the Coolidge Corner with a sharp shock of sensory vehemence. I miss the lush crimson of the curtains and the gold molding above the screen and the greasy opulence of the popcorn, which never tastes as good at home. I miss the glow of the marquee and the row of pearly bulbs along the top of the ticket window and the blast of chill air in the foyer in the summer. And I miss the communion of it all, the chatter fizzling out into a hush the moment the lights dimmed, the laughter that broke out all at once, the sense that each of us was folded into the same darkness, as if cupped in the same closed hand.

The brilliant film scholar Linda Williams has called pornography, melodrama, and horror “body genres,” by which she means that they elicit physical responses in the form of arousal, crying, and screaming. Concert films, if they comprise a genre, are surely bodily, too. If I had to pick just one movie to see as movies should be seen—namely, with strangers in the dark—I would choose Stop Making Sense. It is a movie that moves us: it makes us scream and weep and spin so that we are swept up into the choreography of a bigger body.

I have seen Stop Making Sense in theaters twice, and both times everyone got up to dance in the aisles. At the Coolidge, we writhed on the stage while the images flickered over our faces and hands, as if David Byrne’s gyrations and genuflections were overlaid across our own. “THIS IS NOT MY BEAUTIFUL HOUSE! THIS IS NOT MY BEAUTIFUL WIFE!” we shrieked in concert. “MY GOD, WHAT HAVE I DONE?”

• • •

As we know already, God knows already. He has always known what you have done. This is not because He has especially sharp predictive faculties—as we shall see, He has no need of them—but because He exists outside of time altogether.

Augustine argues that God must be beyond time because He is the one who made time in the first place—and if He is the one who made time in the first place, he could not have done so from “within” time, which by hypothesis did not exist until he made it. Moreover, He could not have made time “before” time, because there was no “before” until time existed. (Strictly speaking, there wasn’t any “until” either.) God looks down at what we experience as the unfurling of earthly chronology and he sees what we might see if we looked off a balcony at a road already rolled out like a ribbon.

• • •

David Byrne was fascinated by Pentecostal Christianity, and in “Once in a Lifetime,” perhaps the most celebrated track in Stop Making Sense, he consciously imitates a preacher, raising his hands to the ceiling as if leading a congregation to worship. Behind him the singers Edna Holt and Lynn Mabry quake as if in a trance. Byrne’s movements are always jerky, and in “Once in a Lifetime” he stumbles until it looks like he is about to drop onto the floor.

“Slain in the spirit” is the Pentecostal term for a religious convulsion so intense that it precipitates collapse. To be slain is to be filled or seized by a force at once foreign and familiar, the ravishing force of God. In Stop Making Sense, the screeching of the synth sounds like a voice from another world, and Byrne often looks as if its trills have possessed him. He moves and shrieks in ways normal people could not and would never think to. He clenches his hands. He leans forward and rattles. He bends so far backwards that his head tilts up toward the sky.

Though Byrne is skeptical of God’s existence, he believes in rapture so piercing it seems to spring from some external source, like an inhabitation. Recalling the concert filmed for Stop Making Sense, he writes, “Partly it was the very size of the band that allowed me, even as lead singer, to lose myself and experience a kind of ecstatic release. You can sometimes feel transported with a smaller group, but with a large band it is often the norm. It was joyous and at times powerfully spiritual, without being corny or religious in any kind of traditional or dogmatic way.”

Still, the Talking Heads were not disdainful of the traditional apparatuses of religion. Their surging choruses allude to gospel music, and their lyrics rush with baptismal waters. In “Take Me to the River,” a cover of a song by the gospel singer Al Green, Byrne, Holt, and Mabry howl, “Take me to the river / drop me in the water / washing me down / washing me down.” And in “Once in a Lifetime,” Byrne bays, “Letting the days go by / let the water hold me down / letting the days go by / water flowing underground / into the blue again, after the money’s gone / once in a lifetime, water flowing underground / same as it ever was.” Then he repeats “same as it ever was” so many times that the sounds of the words rip off from their meanings, become motions, become ripples in the mouth.

Byrne often chose lyrics more for their sound than their meaning, as he explains in the “Music Writes the Words” section of his book. In “Psycho Killer,” the song that opens Stop Making Sense, “far” breaks down into a stutter of “fa-fa-fa-fa-fa,” and English fractures into French. When the song is in a language its audience can understand, it is a commentary on its own breakdown into a language they do not speak: “You start a conversation / you can’t even finish it / You’re talking a lot, but you’re not saying anything.”

Those who are slain in the spirit often experience glossolalia, commonly known as “speaking in tongues”—which is also the name of the Talking Heads album released the year before Stop Making Sense was filmed. The spirit that slays us speaks through us in a language we didn’t know we knew. To the rest of the world, we are babbling, in French or in tongues even stranger: we stop making sense.

• • •

Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens, but the Talking Heads are clear that it is nonetheless not boring. “It’s hard to imagine,” they admit, “that nothing at all could be so exciting, could be this much fun.” It’s hard to imagine—but it is so exciting. It is this much fun!

• • •

It is hard to imagine that anything could be as fun as Stop Making Sense, the only work of art I love that I would describe as unequivocally happy. The whole film is shot through with electric joy, like a wild flinging in the chest or a car ride with the windows open. The musicians thrash and grin and sweat on their instruments. The scenery grows weirder and weirder as more and more pieces are rolled out. Photographs of body parts flash behind the band. There is a hairy forearm, a belly button, a naked ass. There are strange combinations of nonsense words. “Air Conditioned/Under the Bed/Drugs,” one reads. “Before/You’re/Awake,” reads another.

Byrne is the soul and body of the whole production. His performance is paroxysmal. He is tall and gangly, with the wide-eyed expression of an alien surveying Earth for the first time and limbs that flop like noodles. In “This Must Be the Place,” he dances with a floor lamp. And in “Girlfriend Is Better,” he emerges in his huge, iconic suit, which encases his thin pencil of a body.

David Byrne’s oversized suit makes its debut for the band’s performance of “Girlfriend Is Better.” Digital still from Stop Making Sense, 1984, directed by Jonathan Demme.

“Why a big suit?” the trailer for Stop Making Sense asks. Infamously reclusive, Byrne conducted an interview with himself to promote the movie and asked himself the same question—knowing, of course, how he would reply. He answered, “I wanted my head to appear smaller, and the easiest way to do that was to make my body bigger.” The way music affects us is not intellectual, and Byrne shrunk his head to show it. He wanted to stop making sense and start making movements. “Why did you call the movie Stop Making Sense? he asked himself in the interview. His answer was, ironically, sensible: “Because it’s good advice.”

• • •

Augustine maintains that nothing can be taken away from God because nothing about him can be altered: change takes place in time, and God is permanent.

• • •

“To be convinced and seduced by ecstasy is to be won over to a new way of looking at the world and oneself,” Byrne once told an interviewer. So is it “the same as it ever was,” or is it radically otherwise? Is it like or unlike a God who never changes?

• • •

Simone Weil gives one of the best definitions of beauty that I know of when she writes, “The beautiful is that which we cannot wish to change.” To find something beautiful is to want it to remain just as it is forever. And if you are not certain that you would adore it just as acutely if you could read or hear or see it in perpetuity, if you do not want to stare at it not only for the rest of your life but for the rest of every life, you do not adore it enough: you do not adore it at all.

Eternity is new to us, since we are embedded in time. But it is also known to us, since it is implicit in all of our attributions of beauty. Ecstasy is novel, relative to the usual, but it is in truth neither new nor old but of a different and deeper quality, one that renders the notion of “newness” senseless. What ecstasy reveals when it rips us from the calcification of our everyday living is not merely old but eternal. And the eternal is the same as it ever was, over and over, the same and the same and the same.

Eternity is what beauty makes us want, for eternity is where beauty belongs. There must be some place where it will never have to be any different—where it can be, as Byrne puts it,

Same as it ever was...
Same as it ever was...
Same as it ever was...
Look where my hand was
Time isn’t holding up
Time is an asterisk
Same as it ever was...
Same as it ever was...
Same as it ever was...
Same as it ever was...
Same as it ever was...
Same as it ever was...
Same as it ever was...

• • •

We are used to thinking of heaven as a place, but it is just as essentially a kind of time, or more precisely, an absence of time. “Where there is no form,” writes Augustine, “neither is there order, and nothing comes or passes away, and where this does not happen there are certainly no days, nor any variation between successive periods of time.” In “Genius of Love”—a song performed by the Talking Heads spin-off band, The Tom Tom Club, while Byrne is off slotting himself into his gigantic suit—Tina Weymouth sings, “I’m in heaven / with my boyfriend / my laughing boyfriend / there’s no beginning and there is no end.”

• • •

“Genius of Love” ends after four minutes and thirty-one seconds; Stop Making Sense ends after an hour and twenty-eight minutes. We are surrounded by beautiful things, but they exist in time, and change is always ripping them to pieces. In the end, Augustine writes, they “all perish,” and we find ourselves blinking in front of the shuttered concession stand.

The metaphor that recurs throughout The Confessions is that of an utterance, which achieves completion only at the expense of each of its components. Speech “will not be whole” “unless one word dies away after making its syllables heard, and gives place to another.” Thus, the death of each local sound is required for the global glut of music. Even God’s words pass away when they are filtered through an earthly medium: when a voice came from a cloud and declared, “This is my beloved Son,” “that utterance came and went; it had a beginning and an end. Its syllables made themselves heard and then faded away, the second following the first, the third following the second, and so on.”

But the word of God, “spoken” (though not spoken, exactly) in His true voice, does not fade away but “abides forever,” perhaps like the long low toll of a bell. In truth, “he is uttered eternally and through him are eternally uttered all things. This does not mean that one thing was said, and then, when that was finished, another thing, so that everything could be mentioned in succession; no, all things are uttered simultaneously in one eternal speaking.” If God’s real speech were sequential, “time and change would come into it, and there would be neither true eternity nor true immortality.”

If God spoke the way we did, things would happen. But God is in heaven, where nothing ever happens.

• • •

Confessions are sequential, despite the desperate bid for simultaneity they make by muddling the beginning and ending. Movies, too, are sequential, and so is music, which Augustine loved despite himself. He even suspected it that he loved it a little too much:

I used to be much more fascinated by the pleasures of sound than the pleasures of smell. I was enthralled by them, but you broke my bonds and set me free. I admit that I still find some enjoyment in the music of hymns, which are alive with your praises, when I hear them sung by well-trained melodious voices. But I do not enjoy it so much that I cannot tear myself away. I can leave it when I wish. But if I am not to turn a deaf ear to music, which is the setting for the words which give it life, I must allow it a position of some honor in my heart, and I find it difficult to assign it to its proper place. … Without committing myself to an irrevocable opinion, I am inclined to approve of the custom of singing in church, in order that by indulging the ears weaker spirits may be inspired with feelings of devotion.

For Weil, too, music was the superior art form. “Only drama without movement is truly beautiful,” she wrote. She is scornful of Shakespeare’s intricate plotting, but she loves Gregorian chants, which do not seem to her to move but to quiver in the still amber of their solemnity.

Music does move, but it doesn’t always seem to. Sometimes the joy of it is so fierce that it dispels the future. The sound whittles the whole world into one hot point. Stop Making Sense does end. But while we are dancing, we forget that it has to.

• • •

When I die, I hope I find myself in the Coolidge Corner, where I have been a hundred times before, mixing M&Ms into my big vat of popcorn, as I always do, watching Stop Making Sense, as I have done in theaters twice and in my home over and over. There will be the capital letters, as boxy as children’s blocks, scrambled up on the marquee. The air-conditioning will be as icy as ever. It will be a party: everyone will be there. Everyone I know will be dancing in front of the crimson curtains and up and down the aisles. When Stop Making Sense is over, it will start again. It will not be any different. It will be exactly the same. Everything will always be the same as it ever was.

Becca Rothfeld is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Harvard University and a contributor to the TLS, Bookforum, The New Yorker, and more.